Ethiopia - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Ethiopia: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Ethiopia, republic in northeastern Africa, officially the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. A rugged country of tall mountains and arid deserts, Ethiopia has a diverse population, with more than 70 distinct ethnic and linguistic groups.

Known as Abyssinia until the 20th century, Ethiopia is the oldest independent nation in Africa. It was home to the powerful Christian kingdom of Aksum that flourished from around the first century AD. After the 1500s Ethiopia divided into a number of small kingdoms, which were reunified by Menelik II in the 1880s. Eritrea, which had been part of Ethiopia since the 1950s, broke away to become an independent nation in 1993.

Ethiopia is bounded on the northeast by Eritrea and Djibouti, on the east and southeast by Somalia, on the southwest by Kenya, and on the west and northwest by Sudan. The country is divided into nine regions, one for each of its main ethnic groups. Addis Ababa is Ethiopia’s capital and largest city.


Ethiopia covers an area of 1,133,380 sq km (437,600 sq mi). The heart of the country is a high tableland, known as the Ethiopian Plateau, that covers more than half the total area of the country. The plateau is split diagonally in a northeastern to southwestern direction by the Great Rift Valley. Although the average elevation of the plateau is about 1,680 m (about 5,500 ft), it is cut by many rivers and deep valleys, some of which are 600 m (2,000 ft) below the level of the plateau. The area is capped by mountains, the highest of which is Ras Dashen (4,620 m/15,157 ft). These heights and indentations occur in northern Ethiopia, in the region surrounding Lake T’ana (the lake in which the Blue Nile rises). The northeastern edges of the plateau are marked by steep escarpments, which drop some 1,200 m (about 4,000 ft) or more to the Denakil Desert. Along the western fringe the plateau descends less abruptly to the desert of Sudan. Along the southern and southwestern limits, the plateau lowers toward Lake Turkana (formerly called Lake Rudolf).

Climate in Ethiopia

The climate of Ethiopia varies mainly according to elevation. The tropical zone below approximately 1,800 m (approximately 6,000 ft) has an average annual temperature of about 27°C (about 80°F) and receives less than about 500 mm (about 20 in) of rain annually. The subtropical zone, which includes most of the highland plateau and is between about 1,800 and 2,400 m (about 6,000 and 8,000 ft) in elevation, has an average temperature of about 22°C (about 72°F) with an annual rainfall ranging from about 500 to 1,500 mm (about 20 to 60 in). Above approximately 2,400 m (approximately 8,000 ft) is a temperate zone with an average temperature of about 16°C (about 61°F) and an annual rainfall between about 1,300 and 1,800 mm (about 50 and 70 in). The principal rainy season occurs between mid-June and September, followed by a dry season that may be interrupted in February or March by a short rainy season.

Natural Resources of Ethiopia

The resources of Ethiopia are primarily agricultural. The plateau area is fertile and largely undeveloped. The wide range of soils, climate, and elevations permits the production of a diversified range of agricultural commodities. A variety of mineral deposits exist; iron, copper, petroleum, salt, potash, gold, and platinum are the principal ones that have been commercially exploited.

Plants and Animals in Ethiopia

The great variations in elevation are directly reflected in the kind of vegetation found in Ethiopia. The lower areas of the tropical zone have sparse vegetation consisting of desert shrubs, thornbushes, and coarse savanna grasses. In the valleys and ravines almost every form of African vegetation grows profusely. The temperate zone is largely covered with grassland. Afro-alpine vegetation is found on the highest slopes.

The larger species of African wildlife are native to most parts of the country. These include the giraffe, leopard, hippopotamus, lion, elephant, antelope, and rhinoceros. The caracal, jackal, hyena, and various species of monkey are common. Birds of prey include the eagle, hawk, and vulture. Heron, parrot, and such game birds as the snipe, partridge, teal, pigeon, and bustard are found in abundance.

Soils and Environmental Issues in Ethiopia

The highland of Ethiopia is made up of folded and fractured crystalline rocks capped by sedimentary limestone and sandstone and by thick layers of volcanic lava. Soil erosion is a major problem in Ethiopia. Deforestation, overgrazing, and poor land management accelerated the rate of erosion. Many farmers in Ethiopia’s highlands cultivate sloped or hilly land, causing topsoil to wash away during the torrential rains of the rainy season. The rains also leach the highland soils of much fertility, particularly those soils overlying crystalline rocks. The volcanic soils of the highland are less readily leached and therefore are more fertile. The presence of mosquitoes carrying malaria has kept many farmers from developing parts of Ethiopia’s potentially productive lowlands. Deforestation and desertification are worsened by the widespread use of traditional fuels, such as firewood, which represent 96 percent of total energy consumption (1997).

Ethiopia’s government began organizing conservation efforts in rural areas during the 1970s, encouraging farmers to combat erosion by building terraces and planting tree seedlings. The government also closed some hilly areas to agricultural development. About 17 percent (2007) of Ethiopia’s land is officially protected, although the country’s system of national parks and reserves suffers from poaching and illegal logging.


Most Ethiopian people live on rural farm communities. About 84 percent (2005) of the Ethiopian population is rural and occupations in agriculture support 78 percent of all Ethiopians. The population is concentrated heavily in the central plateau region, where agricultural resources are most developed. The ethnic composition is extremely diverse, as a result of racial and linguistic integration that began in ancient times.

Population Characteristics of Ethiopia

The population of Ethiopia (2009 estimate) is 85,237,338, yielding an overall density of 76 persons per sq km (197 per sq mi). The Amhara, who founded the original nation, and the related Tigreans, both of which are highland peoples of partly Semitic origin, constitute about 32 percent of the total population. They occupy the northwestern Ethiopian highlands and the area north of Addis Ababa. The Oromo, a pastoral and agricultural people who live mainly in central and southwestern Ethiopia, constitute about 40 percent of the population. The Shankella, a people in the western part of the country from the border of Eritrea to Lake Turkana, constitute about 6 percent of the population. The Somali, who live in the east and southeast, notably in the Ogadēn region, are about equal in number to the Shangalla. The Denakil inhabit the semidesert plains east of the highlands. The nonindigenous population includes Yemenis, Indians, Armenians, and Greeks.

Political Divisions of Ethiopia

Ethiopia is divided into nine regions composed of specific ethnic groups. The regions, which have a significant degree of autonomy, are Tigray; Afar; Amhara; Oromia; Somalia; Benshangul-Gumaz; Gambela; Harar; and the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples, which comprises about 41 ethnic groups.

Principal Cities of Ethiopia

Addis Ababa is the largest city in Ethiopia; other major cities include Dirē Dawa, Gonder, and Nazrēt. In 2005 only 16 percent of the population was classified as urban.

Religion in Ethiopia

The Ethiopian Orthodox Union Church (see Abyssinian Church), an autonomous Christian sect headed by a patriarch and closely related to the Coptic church of Egypt, was the state church of Ethiopia until 1974.

About half of the people of Ethiopia are Christians. Christianity is predominant in the north, while the southern regions have Muslim majorities. The south also contains considerable numbers of animists. An Ethiopian Jewish sect known as Beta Israel existed in the country until the entire community was airlifted to Israel during Ethiopia’s civil war of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Languages spoken in Ethiopia

Of the 70 or more languages spoken in Ethiopia, most belong to the Semitic and Cushitic branches of the Afro-Asiatic family (see African Languages). The language of the Ethiopian church liturgy, Ge’ez, gave rise to the Semitic cluster of languages: Amharic, Tigrinya, and Tigre. Amharic, the country’s official language, is spoken by more than half of the population. English and Arabic are also spoken by many people.

Education in Ethiopia

A major program to increase literacy in Ethiopia was started in 1979, but by 2005 only 45 percent of the population could read and write. Although free education exists from primary school through the college level, primary school facilities are able to enroll only 65 percent of the children of school age.

Addis Ababa University (founded in 1950) has branches in Addis Ababa, Āwasa, and Bahir Dar. Other important universities include ‘Alemaya University (1952) in Dirē Dawa and Bahir Dar University (2001) in Bahir Dar. Colleges and universities enrolled 210,456 students in 2007.

Culture of Ethiopia

The most significant area of Ethiopian culture is in the field of literature, represented predominantly by translations from ancient Greek, Arabic, and other languages into the ancient Ge’ez and modern Amharic. Most of the works are theological or mythological in nature. Secular literature is largely confined to history.

Ecclesiastical architecture is relatively rich because of the early advent of Christianity in the country. Such structures and their frescoes usually show both Byzantine and Coptic influences. Most notable are the 11 churches at Lalībela, in north central Ethiopia. The magnificent edifices were carved from solid rock in the 12th and 13th centuries, and are connected by a maze of narrow underground passageways. Ethiopia’s skillful and imaginative silversmithing is also notable.


Ethiopia is one of the world’s poorest nations, with a per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) of $245.20 a year in 2007. Most Ethiopians do not participate in the monetary economy, and simply barter in local markets. The health of the Ethiopian economy hangs on the earnings of the agricultural sector, which rise and fall depending on rainfall. Ethiopia is therefore heavily dependent on funding from foreign donors.

Agriculture of Ethiopia

Agriculture by traditional methods, including the raising of livestock, is the most characteristic form of Ethiopian economic activity. Under Ethiopia’s land tenure system, the government owns all land and grants licenses to farmers allowing them to work it. Despite a government program of diversification, coffee remains Ethiopia’s most important commodity. Periodic droughts have greatly reduced agricultural output and forced Ethiopia to import basic foodstuffs.

Commercial estates supply coffee, cotton, sugar, fruit, and vegetables to the nation’s processing industries and for export. Legumes and oil seeds are also grown on a commercial scale. The most important food crops grown primarily for local consumption are cereal grains such as wheat, corn, and sorghum. Ethiopian herders raise cattle, sheep, goats, and fowl.

Mining in Ethiopia

Although many mineral deposits exist in Ethiopia, thick layers of volcanic lava cover the older ore-bearing rock and render exploitation difficult. Outcroppings of iron, copper, zinc, and lead have been mined since ancient times, but deeper reserves of these minerals remain largely unexploited. Gold, limestone, and marble are mined for export.

Manufacturing in Ethiopia

Ethiopian industry is limited and centered on processing agricultural commodities. Principal manufactured products include fabrics, leather goods, footwear, cement, and beer. The principal manufacturing center is Addis Ababa.

Energy in Ethiopia

About 96 percent (1997) of the energy used in Ethiopia comes from traditional fuels such as firewood, charcoal, and dried animal manure. Ethiopia has great potential for producing hydroelectricity. About 99 percent (2006) of the small amount of electricity used in the country comes from hydroelectric facilities.

Currency and Banking of Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s unit of currency, the birr, is issued by the National Bank of Ethiopia (8.90 birr equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). Other banks in the country include the state-owned Commercial Bank of Ethiopia and Development Bank of Ethiopia, as well as several privately owned banks.

Trade in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is primarily an exporter of agricultural products and an importer of consumer and capital goods, and typically experiences a very high trade gap. In 2007 exports amounted to $1,290 million, and imports cost the country $5,230 million. Coffee is Ethiopia’s most valuable foreign-exchange earner. Leading purchasers of exports are Djibouti, Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Germany; chief suppliers of imports are Saudi Arabia, Italy, China, India, and Germany.

Transportation and Communications in Ethiopia

The Ethiopian terrain and an antiquated road network make land travel difficult. Most of Ethiopia’s roads were constructed by Italian occupiers in the 1930s, although the government began improving roads in earnest in the 1990s. About 13 percent (2007) of the country’s roads are paved. Addis Ababa is connected by rail with the port of Djibouti, on an inlet of the Gulf of Aden. A government-owned airline company, Ethiopian Airlines, handles both domestic and international air service. International airports serve Addis Ababa and Dirē Dawa.

The government publishes several newspapers and periodicals, and the number of private periodicals increased in the 1990s. Radio Ethiopia makes radio broadcasts daily in Amharic, Arabic, Somali, Afar, Oromifa, Tigrinya, English, and French.


Ethiopia is a federal democratic republic governed by a constitution promulgated in 1995. All Ethiopians age 18 and higher are permitted to vote.

Executive of Ethiopia

The highest executive office in the Ethiopian government is a prime minister, nominated by the lower house of the legislature from among its members. The prime minister heads a Council of Ministers, made up of representatives from a coalition of parties constituting a majority in the legislature. The lower house of the legislature also elects a president, who is the nominal head of state. A president may not serve more than two six-year terms.

Legislature of Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s bicameral (two-chambered) parliament consists of an upper house, the House of Federation, and a lower house, the House of People’s Representatives. The 108 members of the House of Federation are nominated by regional councils. The House of People’s Representatives consists of a maximum of 550 directly elected members; at least 20 of these representatives must be members of minority ethnic groups.

Local Government of Ethiopia

Ethiopia is made up of nine regions, most with a distinct ethnic majority. Each region has a regional council that may establish lower levels of jurisdiction to allow people to participate in self-government.

Judiciary in Ethiopia

The Ethiopian judicial system consists of federal and regional branches. The Federal Supreme Court has final jurisdiction over federal cases. Regional supreme courts have jurisdiction over regional concerns, with ultimate jurisdiction of regional matters administered by a Federal High Court. Regional supreme courts may also serve as federal first-instance courts. Federal judges are nominated by the prime minister and appointed after approval by the House of People’s Representatives.

Defense of Ethiopia

The Ethiopian National Defense Force consists of an army and an air force. In 2006 about 150,000 soldiers were in the army, and about 2,500 personnel were in the air force.


The kingdom known to the ancient Greeks and Romans as Ethiopia was in fact centered in what is now Sudan. Its capitals were Napata and, later, Meroë. The tradition that the biblical Queen of Sheba was a ruler of Ethiopia who visited King Solomon in Jerusalem in ancient Israel is supported by the 1st century AD Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who identified Solomon’s visitor as a queen of Egypt and Ethiopia. The ancient Aksum (Axum) Kingdom, ancestor of modern Ethiopia, was founded by Semitic-speaking immigrants from southern Arabia who landed in about 1000 BC on the northeastern African coast. They established bases on the northern highlands of the Ethiopian Plateau and from there expanded southward. The chief historical and archaeological records of the Aksum Kingdom date from 150 BC to AD 600. The conversion of the country to Christianity took place during the reign of King Ezana in the 4th century AD. According to traditional accounts, Frumentius, a Syrian who was named bishop of Ethiopia by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, Egypt, played a major role in the conversion. The foundation was then laid for the dependence of the Ethiopian Church upon the Egyptian Coptic Church, which the Ethiopian Church followed by accepting the Monophysite belief that Jesus Christ was solely divine, not both human and divine. This was the basis for the schism in Christianity that took place at the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451.

In the early 6th century King Kaleb of Aksum intervened in south Arabia, claiming to avenge the persecution of local Christians, probably by their Jewish rulers. Nevertheless, Jewish influence seems to have penetrated Ethiopia at about this time; it left an important mark on Ethiopia’s religious customs, and some Aksumites were converted to the Jewish faith. The remnant of these converts, the Beta Israel, also known as Falashas, of northern Ethiopia, immigrated to Israel in the late 20th century. Although the Aksumite ruler Armah gave asylum to the first disciples of the Prophet Muhammad when they were persecuted in Arabia in the 7th century, the rise of Islam led to the isolation of the Aksumite empire. However, many of the country’s rulers sought to forge ties with Western Christendom.

Ethiopian tradition holds that the imperial family is descended from the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. The succession is said to have been broken for a couple of centuries or so during the Zagwe usurpation, which ended in the 13th century when a king of Shewa claiming true descent succeeded in restoring the Solomonian line. There followed a period of religious and cultural revival in which royal chronicles were written and considerable ecclesiastical literature was developed, the most notable work being the Kebra Nagast (The Glory of Kings), which contains an account of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Jerusalem.

In the latter part of the 15th century a handful of Portuguese and other Europeans found their way into Ethiopia, seeking the legendary Christian kingdom in the East whose monarch was known as Prester John. Portugal hoped to find in this kingdom a possible ally against Islam and the rising power of the Ottomans. Following the devastating Muslim attacks upon Ethiopia that had their beginning in 1527 and were led by the great Ahmad Grañ of Hārer, also known as Harar, the emperor appealed to Portugal for aid. Christopher da Gama, the son of Vasco da Gama, landed at Massawa in 1541 with 400 men but was killed with most of his soldiers in a battle with the enemy. Subsequently a new army equipped with firearms—previously a monopoly of Grañ—was built up with the cooperation of the remaining Portuguese, and in 1543 Grañ’s forces were routed and their leader killed.

Foreign Influence

Attempts by the Portuguese and later by the Jesuits to convert the country to Roman Catholicism led to much conflict. The Jesuits were finally expelled in 1633. For the ensuing 150 years the country was almost entirely isolated from European contact; during this period the capital was established at Gonder, where a number of castles were built. In the middle of the 18th century, the power of the emperors declined and civil war began. In 1769 the English explorer James Bruce traveled through the country in search of the source of the Nile River. In 1805 a British mission sought and obtained a port of entry on the Red Sea. Other Europeans followed in the early 19th century.

Gaining the support of high church officials, a successful brigand from the northwestern frontier, Kassa Haylu, had himself crowned Emperor Theodore II in 1855, after having defeated a number of petty feudal rulers who controlled various sections of the country. He revived the imperial power and endeavored to unite and reform the country.

As the consequence of a two-year delay by Queen Victoria of Great Britain in replying to a letter Theodore had sent, the emperor imprisoned several British officials at Magdala. All diplomatic efforts failed to secure their release. In July 1867 a military force under Sir Robert Napier was dispatched to Ethiopia to force the release of the British prisoners. Landing 3,000 men at Mulkutto on Annesley Bay on January 7, 1868, Napier led his army on a march of 650 km (400 mi) across the mountains, aided by dissatisfied elements of the population, especially in Tigray. Theodore, his power waning and his army dwindling, set out for Magdala to meet the British. The mountain fortress was captured by Napier’s force on April 13, 1868, and Theodore committed suicide to avoid capture. The British then withdrew from the country.

Theodore was succeeded by Emperor Johannes, a Tigray chief who had helped the British. His troubled reign, which lasted 20 years, started by suppressing rival claimants to the throne. Subsequently Johannes had to fight many battles with his foreign enemies: Egyptian, Sudanese, and Italian. The Italians, who had acquired the port of Āseb as early as 1869, took over Massawa from the Egyptians with the approval of Great Britain in 1885. Although Britain and Egypt had promised the emperor free access through this port in 1884, the Italians soon closed it and advanced inland. The emperor defeated them at Dogalī in January 1887 and forced their withdrawal. He then turned his attention to the constantly encroaching Sudanese but was killed in battle against them in March 1889. Menelik II, king of Shoa in central Ethiopia, who for some years enjoyed Italian support, now became emperor of Ethiopia and brought the country under a single authority. He then reconsolidated the empire by extensive conquests and began to introduce reforms.

The Accession of Menelik II

On May 2, 1889, about the time of Menelik II’s accession to full power, he concluded the Treaty of Ucciali with Italy, permitting the Italians to occupy Asmara. On the surface friendly relations were established between the two countries. This treaty, however, was the source of much trouble. The copy in Amharic, the Ethiopian language, stipulated that Ethiopia might, as its option, employ Italy’s good offices in the conduct of its diplomacy. The Italian copy, on the other hand, stated that Ethiopia must do so; this would mean full Italian control over Ethiopia’s foreign affairs. The Italians used this copy and claimed that it gave them a protectorate over Ethiopia on the basis of the 1885 General Act of Berlin. Italy’s insistence on its interpretation of the treaty led Menelik to denounce it on May 11, 1893.

Italy’s claim to a protectorate over Ethiopia was recognized by most European powers, with the exception of France and Russia. In 1891 Great Britain signed a protocol with Italy recognizing Ethiopia as within the Italian sphere of influence, in exchange for an Italian promise not to interfere with the Nile, which the British controlled.

Italy then pushed its advantage by moving southward into Ethiopia. Successes against forces led by Ras Mangasha of Tigray induced great confidence on the part of the Italian commander. But Menelik, who had been importing large quantities of firearms from France and Russia, moved with vigor, gathering troops from all over the country. They met the Italians at Ādwa on March 1, 1896, and inflicted a crushing defeat. On October 26, 1896, a provisional peace concluded at Addis Ababa annulled the Treaty of Ucciali and recognized the independence of Ethiopia. Ethiopia gained new prestige, and European diplomats hurried to the capital that Menelik had built at Addis Ababa (“New Flower”) in 1887.

The Italian defeat left France and Britain face to face in the Nile Valley, with Ethiopian opinion favoring France for having contributed to Italy’s defeat at Ādwa. France now aspired to acquire a position of economic supremacy in Ethiopia and to establish a link with the French colonies in West Africa. Menelik at this time seemed the key to the Nile. In the decade after Ādwa a great expansion of his dominion took place. Trained and sometimes led by French and Russian officers and armed with modern weapons, the Ethiopian troops subdued the king of Kaffa and occupied the lands stretching southward to Lake Rudolf (present-day Lake Turkana) and the Kenya border. On March 20, 1897, Menelik signed a secret Franco-Ethiopian alliance, which fixed Ethiopian boundaries on the Nile River and extended certain commercial concessions and preferences, including railroad construction rights, to France. Two months later, on May 14, 1897, Menelik signed a treaty with Great Britain fixing the boundary between Ethiopia and British Somaliland and granting Britain the right to move arms and ammunition across Ethiopia to use against the followers of an Islamic brotherhood, known as dervishes, in the Nile Valley.

At Fashoda, in Sudan, France failed largely because of the inability of Ethiopian and French troops to join forces as planned, although the Ethiopian army had reached the Nile just above Fashoda. Under British pressure, France finally withdrew from Fashoda on November 3, 1898. This was a setback for France. On May 15, 1902, Menelik concluded a treaty with Britain delimiting Ethiopia’s western boundary and agreeing not to arrest the flow of the Blue Nile. Over four years later, on December 13, 1906, an agreement was signed by France, Britain, and Italy assuring Ethiopian independence but undertaking to respect one another’s special interests if the country should split up. Ethiopia did not take part in this convention. For 25 years Ethiopia had maintained its independence against European encroachments, through the skill of Menelik and the military courage of his people, who by this time were well armed, and through utilization of the mutual jealousies of the rival European powers. See also Scramble for Africa.

Menelik’s health deteriorated around 1906, with paralysis occurring in the following year. Finally, in June 1908, Menelik appointed his grandson, Lij Iyasu, a boy of 12, to be his successor; Ras Tesamma was later appointed regent. In 1911 Ras Tesamma died, and Lij Iyasu, though voted old enough to act for himself, had responsibility without power. Menelik died on December 12, 1913, though his death was long kept a secret. World War I (1914-1918) saved Ethiopia from being carved up by Italy, Great Britain, and France.

Lij Iyasu, whose father, Ras Mikael of Welo, had formerly been a Muslim, let it be known in 1915-1916 that he also was predisposed toward Islam. He claimed to be descended from Muhammad and wore the Muslim turban. He also opened friendly relations with the Germans, Austro-Hungarians, and Ottoman Turks. This concerned the Allied legations in Addis Ababa, who supported the Christian chieftains of Shewa. While Lij Iyasu was in the southern part of the country, the Shewan chiefs massed their forces, marched on Addis Ababa, and on September 27, 1916, crowned Menelik’s daughter, Zauditu, empress and declared Ras Tafari, son of Menelik’s cousin Ras Makonnen, regent and heir to the throne. The following year the railroad from the port of Djibouti to Addis Ababa was completed, giving the capital significant access to the sea for the first time.

The Accession of Haile Selassie

The regency of Ras Tafari was stormy. During World War I some of the Allied powers (Britain, France, and Italy), expecting to face a possible German-Turkish invasion of Ethiopia, had agreed in 1916 to allow Italy to assume power in that country if necessary. However, the regent proved capable of governing, and in 1923 Ethiopia was admitted to the League of Nations, assuring the nation’s independence. In 1928 Ras Tafari was crowned as negus (king), and two years later, on November 2, 1930, following the death of Empress Zauditu on April 2, Ras Tafari was crowned emperor and took the throne name Haile Selassie. He came to power with the objective of creating a unified and prosperous state, secure against sedition, dismemberment, or aggression.

Meanwhile, the quest for imperial glory and the humiliating memory of Ādwa gave Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his Fascist regime an excuse for invading Ethiopia. In that country, feeling toward Italy, none too good at any time, was made even worse by frontier and diplomatic incidents that were magnified in Italy out of all proportion to their real importance.

A clash on December 5, 1934, at Walwal, 100 km (62 mi) on the Ethiopian side of the undemarcated frontier with Italian Somaliland, was referred to the League for an opinion as to responsibility, but its decision, in September 1935, held that neither state was responsible. In the meantime, negotiations with Italy were fruitless and the League of Nations, to which the quarrel had again been referred, offered no help or solution. Finally, as the result of a conference between Britain, France, and Italy, proposals were formulated as a basis for settlement. Ethiopia agreed to open negotiations, but Italy, which had been assembling large forces of troops and munitions in Italian Somaliland and Eritrea, refused. On October 3, 1935, without any declaration of war, the Italians invaded Ethiopia. Although Ethiopia had delayed mobilization until the Italians moved, its poorly armed and equipped troops were able to slow their initial advances.

Threats by Mussolini and German dictator Adolf Hitler prevented other Western European nations from taking strong measures against Italy; no government wanted to become involved in commitments elsewhere that might compromise its actions at home. In 1935 the League of Nations invoked economic and financial sanctions against Italy, but these omitted such important commodities as coal, oil, and steel. The same year Sir Samuel Hoare, British foreign minister, and Pierre Laval, French premier and foreign minister, proposed the dismemberment of Ethiopia to settle Italian claims, but strong adverse sentiment, particularly in Britain, caused the abandonment of this plan. In 1936 the League again appealed for peace, but the sanctions were not expanded.

The Italian troops, commanded by Marshal Pietro Badoglio, entered Addis Ababa on May 5, 1936, but Emperor Haile Selassie had already left. Selassie found refuge in England and later attended the League of Nations at Geneva, Switzerland, where he made a moving speech, declaring, “God and history will remember your judgment.” Italy formally annexed Ethiopia on May 9, 1936; on June 1 the king of Italy was declared emperor, and Ethiopia, combined with Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, was named Italian East Africa.

Ethiopia During World War II

The Italian occupation of Ethiopia lasted for only five years, during which time the Ethiopian patriots continued to resist. A year after the outbreak of World War II (1939-1945), on July 12, 1940, Britain officially recognized Ethiopia as an ally and promised liberation in case of victory. Haile Selassie was flown to the Anglo-Egyptian-occupied Sudan to organize Ethiopian resistance. On January 15, 1941, he led his troops into Ethiopia. The British occupied Addis Ababa on April 6, 1941, and Haile Selassie made a formal entry on May 5, 1941. The Italian troops surrendered at Amba Alagi on May 20, 1941. Haile Selassie was reestablished on his throne.

British troops had freed Ethiopia from Italian control, but German and Italian forces menaced Egypt while the British still required a protected land route from the Sudan to the Red Sea. Accordingly, an Anglo-Ethiopian agreement was negotiated in January 1942. It provided for the two allies to collaborate. British civil and military advisers, along with financial and other assistance, were sent to Ethiopia to enable the emperor to reestablish his administration. To maintain internal security, a British military mission undertook the raising, organizing, and training of a regular Ethiopian army.

On December 19, 1944, a new Anglo-Ethiopian agreement was signed as between “two equal and independent powers,” which, however, accorded a preferential status to the British government in respect to the appointment of advisers and management of the currency. The educational system was reorganized and expanded; the railroad to Djibouti was restored to Ethiopian control. In 1945 Ethiopia granted a 50-year oil concession to the Sinclair Oil Company.

Postwar Ethiopia

Ethiopia became a charter member of the United Nations (UN) in 1945 and immediately made strong demands for the former Italian colonies of Italian Somaliland and Eritrea. The peace treaty of February 10, 1947, which ended the war with Italy, also terminated the Anglo-Ethiopian agreement of 1944, restoring to Ethiopia its traditional territory except for the region of Ogadēn, which remained under British administration until 1948. British administration of Italian Somaliland was terminated by the UN decision to place the area under Italian trusteeship for ten years, beginning in 1950; in 1960 this area, together with British Somaliland, became independent Somalia. In 1952 the UN assigned Eritrea to Ethiopia, nominally as an autonomous unit in federation under the Ethiopian crown.

In 1962 Eritrean autonomy was ended, in a move by the government to establish full control over the ports of Massawa and Āseb. The Muslim-organized Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) began a guerrilla war, at first for autonomy and later for independence, which was to last for nearly 30 years. By the late 1960s about half of the Ethiopian army was stationed in Eritrea. Other separatists, particularly ethnic Somalis in the Ogadēn region, also fought the government.

Demonstrations by leftist student groups, demanding land and education reforms as well as Eritrean independence, led to violent clashes with the police in the late 1960s and early 1970s. From 1972 to 1974, a famine in Tigray and Welo provinces resulted in some 200,000 deaths. News of the famine was suppressed by the government. The general public was unaware of the deaths until late 1973, and further demonstrations against the government broke out on their revelation.

In the early 1970s Haile Selassie continued to play a major role in international affairs, helping to mediate disputes between Senegal and Guinea, Tanzania and Uganda, and northern and southern Sudan. Nevertheless, he largely ignored urgent domestic problems: the great inequality in the distribution of wealth, rural underdevelopment, corruption in government, rampant inflation, unemployment, and a severe drought in the north from 1972 to 1975.

The Mengistu Regime

In February 1974 students, workers, and soldiers began a series of strikes and demonstrations that culminated on September 12, 1974, with the deposition of Haile Selassie by members of the armed forces. Chief among the coup leaders was Major Mengistu Haile Mariam. A group called the Provisional Military Administrative Council, known as the Derg, was established to run the country, with Mengistu serving as chairman. In late 1974 the Derg issued a program for the establishment of a state-controlled socialist economy. In early 1975 all agricultural land in Ethiopia was nationalized, with much of it then parceled out in small plots to individuals. In March 1975 the monarchy was abolished, and Ethiopia became a republic.

The overthrow of the monarchy and the creation of the republic ushered in a new era of political openness. Ethnic groups that were brought into Ethiopia in the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the Oromo, Afars, Somali, and Eritreans, stepped up their demands for self-determination. Several of these groups even questioned the legitimacy of the Ethiopian state and created guerrilla forces to fight for independence. With the liberalization of politics, various ideologically based political organizations formed, each with its own view as to the preferred character of a new Ethiopia. Rather than allow democratic elections, the military regime attempted to co-opt potential opponents, giving the most significant political organizations representation in a deliberative body, the Politbureau.

By 1975 it was clear that Mengistu intended to consolidate his hold on power. This led to criticism from the civilian left, particularly after several top leaders of the Derg were killed in early 1977, reportedly on Mengistu’s orders. Chief among opponents was the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), which by the beginning of 1977 had launched a systematic campaign to undermine the military regime. The EPRP conducted urban guerrilla warfare against the regime, referred to as the “White Terror.” The government responded with its own “Red Terror” campaign. The government provided peasants, workers, public officials, and students considered loyal to the government with arms to help government security forces root out so-called enemies of the revolution. Between 1977 and 1978 an estimated 100,000 people suspected of being enemies of the government were killed or disappeared in the name of the Red Terror.

Increasing human rights violations led to tensions between Ethiopia and the United States (Ethiopia’s superpower ally of more than 20 years), culminating in a complete break in relations in 1977. The regime was weakened by the withdrawal of military aid, and opponents of the regime gained control of vast amounts of rural territory and destabilized life in the cities. By the summer of 1977 the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) controlled all but the major cities in the province of Eritrea; the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), supported by the EPLF, had successfully captured significant territory in the Tigray region; and Somali separatists, aided by the national army of Somalia, had completely routed the Ethiopian army in the Ogadēn region. However, by early 1978 the Mengistu regime had managed to secure military assistance from the USSR and Cuba, enabling it to regain control of lost territories and drive its opponents underground.

Following this success, Mengistu attempted to win popular support for his regime. He created the Worker’s Party of Ethiopia (WPE) in 1984 as Ethiopia’s official Marxist-Leninist party and prepared a new constitution to make Ethiopia a Marxist-Leninist people’s republic. In 1987 the new constitution was proclaimed and the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia declared, modeled after the Soviet system of government. Nominally a system of civilian rule, the new constitution abolished the Derg and established a new, popularly elected national assembly. Former Derg members remained in control, however, and the new assembly elected Mengistu as president of Ethiopia.

Resistance and Revolution

Despite its reorganization, the Mengistu government continued to be viewed by many as illegitimate, and by 1987 opposition groups such as the EPLF and the TPLF, which had been driven underground a decade earlier, emerged as revitalized and better organized military organizations. Over the next two years, the Ethiopian army suffered an increasing number of defeats, and its forces became demoralized. The EPLF regained control of most of Eritrea, and the TPLF captured the entire Tigray region and began operations in surrounding regions.

Beginning in the late 1970s Ethiopia suffered from a series of droughts, which progressively lowered agricultural production. A prolonged drought between 1984 and 1986 plunged the country into famine. The embattled northern regions of Ethiopia were hardest hit by the drought. Under an ill-planned resettlement program, the government forcibly relocated about 600,000 northerners to the south. The protracted civil war and the government’s mistrust of Westerners hampered worldwide efforts to provide food and medical aid to the inhabitants of Ethiopia. During the 1980s an estimated 1 million Ethiopians died from starvation as a result of famine.

In the late 1980s Ethiopia lost the support of the Soviet Union, which had become dissatisfied with Ethiopia’s political and economic development under Mengistu. Faced with economic and military shortages, the government was forced to devise a political solution to its problems. The Ethiopian national assembly called for unconditional peace talks with the EPLF in June 1989, and later agreed to similar talks with the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), an umbrella organization headed by the TPLF. Even as these talks proceeded, the opposition forces acquired more and more territory. In February 1990 the EPLF mounted a major drive aimed at capturing the Eritrean port city of Massawa, the entry point for much of the food and military supplies coming into Ethiopia. By the middle of the month it had overrun the city, dealing a decisive blow to the Ethiopian army. A year later the EPRDF had encircled Addis Ababa in the country’s heartland. The Ethiopian army lost its will to fight, and the country’s political leaders conceded defeat. In May 1991 the EPLF took complete control of Eritrea, Mengistu fled the country, and the EPRDF took control of Addis Ababa.

Post-Mengistu Ethiopia

The EPRDF, led by Meles Zenawi, set up a national transitional government in Addis Ababa, and the EPLF established a provisional government in Eritrea. After a referendum in 1993, Eritrea declared its independence, and Ethiopia recognized the new Eritrean government. In June 1994 Ethiopian voters elected representatives to a Constituent Assembly, charged with writing a new democratic constitution. The EPRDF won 484 out of 547 seats in the assembly. A new constitution granting special rights to different ethnic groups in Ethiopia was ratified in December, and became effective in August 1995. In May 1995 a new legislative body, the House of People’s Representatives, was elected, with the majority of seats going to the EPRDF. In August the Constituent Assembly officially transferred power to the new legislature, and the country was renamed the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. In the same month the legislature elected Meles as the country’s prime minister.

Some ethnic groups, including segments of the Oromo and Amhara people, remain displeased with the Ethiopian government and consider it as illegitimate as the one that preceded it. The most vigorous opposition has come from the Ogadēn region of southeastern Ethiopia, where Islamic fundamentalist Somali rebels, supported by Somali kinsmen, have battled for the region’s independence since before the overthrow of Mengistu. Nevertheless, the EPRDF maintained firm control of the federal government, and Meles was reelected prime minister in 2000 and 2005.

Red Terror Trials

Beginning in 1994, Ethiopian courts tried members and supporters of Mengistu’s regime for offenses committed during and after the years of the Red Terror. More than 5,000 suspects were charged with war crimes such as torture, murder, and genocide. A number of senior Derg members, including Mengistu, were tried in absentia. The Ethiopian government failed to extradite Mengistu from Zimbabwe, to which he fled in 1991. In December 2006 Mengistu was found guilty of genocide, as were all but one of the other 72 officials on trial. In January 2007 Ethiopia’s Federal High Court sentenced Mengistu to life imprisonment. In May 2008, however, the Federal Supreme Court, which has final jurisdiction, overturned the life sentence ruling and imposed the death penalty in absentia on Mengistu, who remained in exile in Zimbabwe.

War Against Eritrea

In mid-1998 clashes broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea along the countries’ border, with each side accusing the other of seizing territory. The border had not been precisely delineated when Eritrea became independent from Ethiopia in 1993. By early 1999 hundreds of thousands of troops had been sent to the border, and the dispute had become a bitter war. Tens of thousands of soldiers died in the fighting before a cease-fire was declared in June 2000. In December Eritrea and Ethiopia, under the auspices of the UN, signed a peace agreement that formally ended the war and established a UN commission to demarcate the border between the countries. The boundary commission completed its work in 2004, but physical demarcation of the border was delayed by Ethiopia’s continued military presence in territory awarded to Eritrea.

Military Intervention in Somalia

In late 2006 Ethiopia sent troops into Somalia in an effort to topple the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which had established control over most of Somalia after its militias seized the capital of Mogadishu in June 2006. Ethiopian officials claimed the ICU was a terrorist group backed by Eritrea. Ethiopia supported the Somali transitional government that had been elected in 2004 but had failed to establish control over Somalia. The Islamist forces in Somalia announced a holy war against Ethiopia in October 2006. In December, Ethiopian prime minister Meles announced he was waging war against them to protect his country’s sovereignty.

An estimated 20,000 Ethiopian troops crossed the border into Somalia, and fighting broke out in mid-December. The Ethiopian air force was also deployed to support the ground campaign. In a two-week offensive, the combined forces of Ethiopia and the Somali transitional government reclaimed Mogadishu and forced the Islamist forces to retreat to the southernmost part of Somalia. Subsequently, the African Union announced plans to deploy peacekeeping forces to Somalia to support the transitional government in its efforts to establish control over the country.

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